Of course they have repercussions in the broader culture, but a big reason for discussing things like "Photoshopping" (manipulation), journalistic integrity, and borrowing and copying or "deriving" works on a photo enthusiast website is to help each of us make decisions for our own practice. Whatcha gonna do your own self?
I think it's good to get clear. Think it through, work it through, and come to your own decisions.
What you decide is up to you, and it could be anything. Maybe this whole discussion has made you disgusted with dishonest photography and steeled your resolve to be as honest as you can possibly be in your own photographs; maybe you are scornful of the whole brouhaha and have decided not only that you like manipulating images but that you're going to take a class and learn how to do more of it, and better. You might decide to reject imitation and cliché and "classicism," or you might have gotten excited about the idea of recreating a certain kind of paintings.
You have to realize that different people are looking for different things in photographs. Some people go to enormous lengths to put things into photographs that I just don't care a fig about. And vice versa.
It's really up to you to draw your own lines in the debate, but I think it's helpful to consider the issues up front and make conscious decisions.
I spent my youth in art class (almost literally—one year I had four periods a day in the art room) where my favorite teacher had us incessantly copying things. I got famous as an "artist" in my small school because I was skilled at that. The great "j'accuse" of that history was provided ten or so years ago by the nine-year-old daughter of a classmate, gifted at drawing and painting, whose motto, bless her, was "never go from flat." That is, according to her, you go from three dimensions to two, not from two to two. Don't copy, in other words. I can always tell paintings that come from photographs.
Just applying logic, I reached the same conclusion when I was about 14 or 15. But I was so much worse at drawing from life than I was at "going from flat" that I would have essentially had to start over. That's when I decided that photography was much better than I was at reducing three dimensions to two. A year later I had my first photography exhibit, in the school dining room.
Years later, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears photo magazine editor, one of the regular contributors wrote an article about combining 4x5" negatives. He noted that often, his landscapes had great foregrounds but dull skies, or great skies but nothing interesting in the foreground, so he took these formerly "rejected" negatives and did a sort of primitive Jerry Uelsmann number on them, combining foregrounds and skies from different places and different times.
That horrified me then and still does. The reason I'm interested in photography at all is that it can tell me something about the world; if you know how photography works, there can be a sensical, dependable connection between some of the elements of a picture and what was in front of the lens when the picture was taken. The photograph isn't "truth," of course, but if you're smart you can usually retrieve from pictures something true about the scene; something at least provisionally true. With the big advantage that you can study things in depth and at leisure that either didn't hold still for long or don't exist any more.
Sometimes the true things you find might align with what you need or want to know; sometimes it's other things.
At the very last minute, we had an advertiser drop out, and I had a column to fill and only a couple hours to come up with something. The newly empty column happened to fall within that "combining negatives" article, so I wrote a short "counterpoint"—a rebuttal, as it were—expressing my misgivings about the practice, and signed it with a pseudonym.
That was wrong. It was a rookie mistake on my part. I shouldn't have done it. The author of the article was miffed at me, and rightly so. An editor's duty is to support the articles he or she publishes, and by extension support his or her authors, and not subvert either. I learned my lesson and never did that to one of my authors again.
Of course there's really nothing wrong, per se, with combining two negatives to make a "fantasy" landscape that doesn't exist in the real world. It's just that I don't want to look at horrible lying sh*t like that, and if I'm shown faked photographs without being warned they've been faked, then I feel betrayed and angry.
The one steady current of my writing about photography all these years, in every dimension, is that my sympathy rests firmly with the viewer, practitioner, or consumer. Bob Shell, who for many years was the influential editor of Shutterbug magazine (in its heyday known by everybody because it was sort of the national classified ads section, before eBay existed), once wrote me an extraordinary admonishing letter detailing the responsibilities of a magazine editor as he saw them. Primarily, he said, the duty of a magazine was to help the manufacturers sell their products. That got me on my high horse, and I wrote back a spirited rebuttal. When last I heard of him, Bob was serving a life sentence for murder and had disappeared from the photo scene, and I never agreed with him in virtually any way I can think of, but I thank him for one thing—making me clear that my mission was to look out for the magazine's readers, not the advertisers. (My duty to the advertisers was to put their ads in front of as many sets of eyes as possible, but that's where it stopped.) My sympathy was not with the advertiser who was trying to sell a $600 thingamajiggy to the reader, but with the reader who was thinking of parting with his hard-earned $600 and needed to know if the thingamajiggy was worth it.
Similarly, my sympathy is with the viewer of images, and that's what I suggest you consider when you're trying to get clear about your own practices. Personally, my conceit about photographic images is that I can see more in them than the photographer can put there. That's why I don't care for highly perfected, tightly controlled studio and fashion photography...because all that's there is what the art director and photographer and their corps of helpers can put in them, which means, for me, they're often...empty. There's nothing there I can discover for myself. It just bores me, is all. Potentially, in every photograph, there's more meaning and more information that you could possibly think to invent; so have some respect for the viewer and don't vandalize the image's connection to the reality you might not even see.
That's just my own viewpoint, of course.
On a more superficial level, just consider how you feel if you get shown something that appears to be one thing and then find out it's not that but something else. I think that would save each of us from the risk of sticky trouble. If you're combining negatives, make sure the viewer knows that. If you're staging pictures of Indian railway stations, don't pretend they are candid photojournalism.
Generally, my advice would be, whatever you're going to do, do it boldly. Julie Blackmon's type of constructed tableaux aren't my thing, exactly, but she does what she does boldly and unapologetically and I like that. If you're going to Photoshop, then do a lot of it and call it photoart—don't pretend it's a photograph. If you want to stage your photographs, then stage them, but make sure the viewers know it. Look at it from the viewer's perspective and see it how they'd see it and try to figure out how they'd feel about it. It's only when you pretend, or claim, or let others assume, that you're doing one thing, while you are in fact doing something else, that problems come into the picture. Ask yourself, if the viewer knew how I did this, would they they think I've cheated? That's what has the potential to transform you into a sniveling weasel. Not the practice or method, whatever it is.
So get clear about what you like to do and then do it. But be stand-up about it. There's nothing wrong with any practice as long as a) it's what you really want to do and b) being honest and up front about it wouldn't cause you (or anyone else in your situation) any embarrassment.
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Hank: "The whole 'McCurry Thing' reminds me of this passage from one of Werner Herzog's books:
I was on a panel discussion with other filmmakers who were talking about “reality” and how to capture it on film, how cinéma-vérité was the only way forward, that manipulation and staging in non-fiction cinema was a no-no. A young woman next to me kept raving about her own particular style, how she wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible, like a fly on the wall. It was just the kind of thin, trivial ideology I look upon with deep suspicion ...I say here to adherents of cinéma-vérité : I am no bookkeeper; my mandate is poetry. I want to be involved. I want to shape and sculpt, to stage things, to intrude and invent. I want to be a film director. I was the only person at the festival arguing against these morons. The subject was being so hashed to death that I couldn’t take it any longer. I grabbed a microphone and said, “I’m no fly on the wall. I am the hornet that stings.” There was an immediate uproar, so not having anything more to say, I shouted out, “Happy New Year, losers.” And that was that.
Mike replies: This reminds me that I meant to write a paragraph in this piece about how ideas can be formed in opposition. Sometimes confronting ideas that you don't agree with can be as important to growth as finding those you agree with.